Main Afghan opposition candidate drops poll boycott, agrees to independent panel to probe allegations of fraud

Monday, October 11th 2004, 11:21 am
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ The main opposition candidate in Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election backed off a boycott of the vote, saying Monday that he would accept the findings of an independent commission to look into alleged cheating.

Ethnic Tajik candidate Yunus Qanooni, considered the likely runner-up to interim President Hamid Karzai, made the announcement at his Kabul home on Monday, a day after two other candidates also peeled away from the boycott. He said he had made his decision after a meeting with U.N. representative Jean Arnault and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

``I don't want to be against the election and I appreciate the good will of the people of Afghanistan,'' Qanooni said. ``I want to prove to the people of Afghanistan that the national interest is my highest interest.''

The announcement was a huge victory for election organizers, who agreed to set up the panel on Sunday in hopes it would end the crisis that emerged when all 15 opposition candidates announced the boycott _ in the middle of Saturday's voting.

Massooda Jalal, the only female candidate, and ethnic Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq said Sunday they would end their boycott in favor of setting up the panel.

Meanwhile, an exit poll conducted by an American non-profit group projected that Karzai would win the election with the outright majority needed to avoid a second round.

The survey by the International Republican Institute, which is closely tied to the U.S. Republican Party although it has no direct affiliation with the GOP, said the U.S.-backed Karzai would finish ahead of Qanooni by an overwhelming 43 percentage points.

The group, which sent a 13-member observer team to monitor the elections, said that Karzai was well over the 50 percent mark necessary to avoid a runoff. But it did not give a breakdown of support for all the candidates nor did it release supporting data.

A senior Western official who met with some of the 15 candidates on Sunday said many had decided to back down and support the investigative team.

``Some of the candidates say they made that statement (the boycott) in too much of a rush,'' the official said on condition of anonymity. ``They are now looking for a way out that allows them to save face.''

Election observers, the U.S. Embassy and Karzai have all sought to put the best face possible on the vote, noting that Taliban rebels were mostly silent and that turnout was high in a nation that has never before tasted democracy.

``The numbers and enthusiasm both were very, very great. It was unbelievable. A day of celebration, really, for the Afghan people,'' Karzai said Monday on NBC's ``Today'' show. ``People braved attacks by terrorists and went to the election. ... This is really a victory of the Afghan people over terrorism.''

Karzai added that the election should be a slap in the face to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers.

``This election ... is a strong reminder to him that people don't want them, that the people want a different life. So he should be much more afraid today than he was the day before yesterday or before that. He must be trying to hide even in a tighter place than he was a few days ago. We will find him one day, sooner or later,'' Karzai said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also praised the elections as an ``enormous accomplishment'' and voiced his hope that the January vote in Iraq will be an equal success.

``It is not an easy task to turn the dictatorship, as in the case of Afghanistan, and it won't be an easy task in Iraq,'' Rumsfeld said in Macedonia after making an unannounced visit to Iraq.

Boxes of ballots, some arriving by mule, were not expected to finish reaching counting centers until at least Tuesday.

Before the tallying of votes can start, the numbers of received ballots are checked against a list of votes cast to ensure none of the ballot boxes have been stuffed with fraudulent votes, U.N. officials said.

Then, the ballots from various districts are mixed together so no one knows which area favored which candidate.

Actual counting may not start until Wednesday or Thursday, said electoral spokesman Sultan Baheen. Aykut Tavsel, another electoral spokesman, said candidates have until Tuesday evening to file formal complaints, and that the commission doesn't want to start the count until after it has reviewed them.

Final results were not expected until the end of October.

``The counting will be done in full view of cameras,'' Karzai told NBC. ``Afghan television will telecast it direct from the counting stations. I am confident enough the count will be conducted properly.''

Security chiefs in the provinces and Baheen said no major attacks had been reported on the transporting of the ballot boxes.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, told The Associated Press the election could sound the rebels' death knell, and that Taliban leaders might ``eventually look for ways to reconcile with the government that comes in.''

Poll organizers decided Sunday they would form an independent commission to investigate the weekend balloting.

``There is going to be an independent commission made to investigate it,'' electoral director Farooq Wardak said. ``There could be mistakes; we are just human beings. My colleagues might have made a mistake.''

The panel will include former Canadian diplomat Craig Jenness and Staffan Darnolf, a Swedish election expert. The third member was yet to be announced, officials said.

In Washington, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice predicted that ``this election is going to be judged legitimate,'' adding, ``I'm just certain of it.''

The opposition complaint was focused on allegations that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters' thumbs in some polling stations could be rubbed off, allowing some people to vote more than once.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder also said he thought Karzai was likely to emerge victorious.

``It is my opinion that he will do it, and in the first round,'' the German leader said in a joint news conference with Karzai after meeting with German soldiers who are part of the 9,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force.